the humor of truth: Isabelle Stengers’ Cosmopolitics I

the power to talk about the world independently of the relationships of knowledge that humans create.

Isabelle Stengers’ Cosmopolitics I has only one review on Amazon that basically amounts to: “this shit is hard.” That a single two-star review might be steering potential readers away from the work is disappointing because, while Stengers is dense, the text is incredibly rewarding.

The question of the relationship between a text on science studies and a stumbling progression towards a Paranoiac Noise Theory may not be obvious from the surface but the links, indeed, are present. Science is a question of knowledge and authority. And thus:

If learning to think is learning to resist a future that presents itself as obvious, plausible, and normal, we cannot do so either by evoking an abstract future, from which everything subject to our disapproval has been swept aside, or by referring to a distant cause that we could and should imagine to be free of any compromise. To resist a likely future in the present is to gamble that the present still provides substance for resistance, that it is populated by practices that remain vital even if non of them has escaped the generalize parasitism that implicates them all.

What is noise but knowledge that is unrecuperated into the system? Knowledge that resists the “obvious, plausible, and normal?” What is paranoia but a means of recuperating noise, of finding significance in that which is defined as insignificant? And thus noise and paranoia gamble on the present just as Stengers suggests.

Let us use our illusion.

Every living being may be approached in terms of the question of the requirements on which no only its survival but also its activity depend, and which define its “milieu.” And every living being brings into existence obligations that qualify what we refer to as its behavior: not all milieus or all behaviors are equal from the point of view of the living; and the difference is especially relevant when we address those obligations we impose on the living in the name of some knowledge we wish to obtain.

The question that Stengers brings up (not knowingly, perhaps) is a question of use and misuse. In directly questioning the move from experimental physics to theoretical physics is opened to the approach of the paranoiac.

There are no neutral narratives.

Can one appropriate her discourse? Rip, remix, and rewrite her questions of knowledge production and authority outside the scope of science and science studies? To take her work and, as a fellow philosophical refugee, use it (amplified through an 8×10 stack) to question other discourses, other authorities, other modes of knowledge production?

Are the means I give myself, the approach to practices in terms of requirements and obligations, appropriate to the problem I want to bring into existent practices, namely, the escape from a generalize polemic that puts every practice in a position of disqualifying and/or in danger of being disqualified?

Because, as she notes:

The true subject of description is now a disorderly multitude.

And conducting that disorderly multitude towards a revolution (articulating Dr. Gonzo’s rising sound) is a question that must remain open, that cannot be closed, that recuperates the remainder even as it (inevitably) excludes, selects, and chooses.

Nevertheless, they are strange poets indeed, for the power they have of asking questions that, by right, should be of interest to all humans, of making discoveries on our behalf, and announcing the truth of the shared world, obviously constitutes on component of their passion.

all quotes from:

Stengers, Isabelle. Cosmopolitics I. Trans. Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. Print.

Helmhotz appears.

Composed while listening to Fishtank Ensemble, Woman in Sin.

A certain delirium: on Noise, Water, Meat

The trouble is that noises are never just sounds and the sounds they mask are never just sounds: they are also ideas of noise.

So begins a series of meetings, approaches, interactions with texts, with noise, paranoia, truth, control, and authority. As I work my way through these texts towards my exams and dissertation, I will be working through associations, links, commonalities, and synchronicities. Noises, one might say, that cannot help but signify (when played loud enough).

Douglas Kahn lays out in his introduction to Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts a definition of sound that is rather broad and encompassing:

By sound I mean sounds, voices, and aurality – all that might fall within or touch on auditive phenomena, whether this involves actual sonic or auditive events or ideas about sound or listening; sounds actually heard or heard in myth, idea, or implication; sounds heard by everyone or imagined by one person alone; or sounds as they fuse with the sensorium as a whole.

This argument has a certain hollow ring to it (if one might be permitted to play with it, or strike it forcefully with a mallet). It seems constructed, as introductions often are, to tie together disparate elements of a text that would not be otherwise unified, to project into the text a clarity that the text itself lacks. To wit, Kahn’s text is long and sprawling. To what end do the questions of water and meat add to the question of noise? To what end are William Burroughs’ writing on the word virus and Artaud’s screams connected to noise? To noise as the suppressed, the outside, the unwanted, the meaningless that maintains meaning? Why are imagined sounds and ideas of sound treated as part of Kahn’s definition when, despite the length of the text, actual sonic events and practices are not fully explored? It is not that the connections are not there or the associations lack meaning and import, but there is a question of focus, of scope. There are limitations, but if one wants to philosophize with an amp@11 one must begin where one can.

Noises haunt. For Douglas Kahn, noises haunt the arts as they are suppressed, sought, elevated, silenced, and imagined. There is, indeed, a spectral reality to noise, a shifting hauntology, an absent presence that once found, once remarked upon signifies and thus fails to be noise after all.

it is only what is made of noise, of the history of noise, that must explain itself in the face of the possibility that there is no such thing as noise.

But what then is noise?

The existence of noise implies a mutable world through an unruly intrusion of an other, an other that attracts difference, heterogeneity, and productive confusion; moreover, it implies a genesis of mutability itself.

But what then is noise?

This repeated question is not meant to diminish Kahn’s work. For he does, indeed, offer several working definitions of noise. It is meant, rather, to highlight that definitions of noise are always working definitions, contextual, situational, limited.

So the definition of noise might be regarded as of far less importance that what can be done with noise, how noise might be used to challenge norms, regimes, power structures (those that would impose a definition and enforce an exclusion).

Thus, the grinding sound of power relations are heard here in the way noises contain the other, in both senses of the word.

Though the rhetoric of emancipation is an easy trap.

Subvert the Norms! Noise for Everyone! Democracy is Noisy! 

The statements are true in the way that slogan are always true and never falsifiable. Can noise be emancipatory? Certainly. Is it inherently? Not in the least (c.f. the LRAD).

Kahn is aware of this and goes to great lengths to point out the subversion of emancipatory rhetoric in one of the Great Saints of Noise: John Cage.

When he hears individual affect or social situation as an exercise in reduction, it is just as easy to hear their complexity. When he hears music everywhere, other phenomena go unheard. When he celebrates noise, he also promulgates noise abatement. When he speaks of silence, he also speaks of silencing.

Noise is a tool. Noise is a metaphor. For Kahn, it is a means of understanding a certain period of avant garde art that he seems particularly taken with (his water and meat metaphors are less developed though still focused on a particular subset of the arts). Kahn does however challenge several sacred cows (making fine steaks), give a detailed (if sprawling) overview of the possibility of noise and silence, and serves as an important introduction to the theory of noises and Noise Theory.



all quotes from:

Kahn, Douglas. Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2001. Print.

Helmhotz appears.

Composed while listening to KTL, IV.